The Mouse Machine: Disney and Technology (review)
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The Mouse Machine: Disney and Technology. By J. P. Telotte. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2008. Pp. vii+221. $20.

It seems increasingly bizarre to equate the Disney corporation, the twentieth- century media goliath, with a tiny, furry rodent. Despite the Mickey icon, Disney is anything but a mouse. Technology has undoubtedly assisted in the bloating of a small studio in Burbank, California, into a global entertainment machine. For J. P. Telotte, professor of film and media studies at Georgia Institute of Technology, innovations in sound, color, and animation over three-quarters of a century have fed the process, and an in-house “technological attitude . . . almost as fundamental to the company’s identity as its trademark cartoon characters” (p. 3) has assured success. Most obvious in creations such as EPCOT, this “technological attitude” is not isolated to the Disney workplace; it is broadcast to legions of fans. According to Telotte, rather than signifying pure escapism, the experiencing of Disney parks and films has eased us into fresh relationships with new technologies—indeed, the “Mouse Machine” has proved pivotal in their promotion and acceptance. [End Page 952]

As Telotte sees them, most Disney cartoons and landscapes can be decoded as “narratives about our relationship to technology” (p. 21). In the first chapter, he considers the use of sound technology in early cartoons in which images on screen are endowed with a tightly controlled realism. For example, the steamboat in Steamboat Willie (1928) made a tremendous chugging noise to show its power while animals vocalized on cue as if solely to entertain. And the adoption of Technicolor by Disney in the 1930s allowed the studio to impart moral codes simply through brush color. Hence, the darkening hues of trees in Babes in the Woods (1932) hinted at lurking evil, while the humongous red coat worn by (or hanging off) Mickey in The Band Concert (1935) asserted his role as leader.

Technology also afforded Disney the opportunity to tinker with notions of reality. Telotte explores the use of the multiplane camera in The Three Caballeros (1945), which coincided with an attempt by the Office of Inter-American Affairs to woo South American countries. In this part-live, part-animated production, a particularly romantic Donald Duck acts as suitor to real-life Mexican senoritas, the hybrid filmic world provoking all kinds of border crossings. On occasion, Disney employed technology to comment on anxieties about technology. Sporting wide-screen Cinemascope, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), like many science-fiction movies of the 1950s, was ripe with analogies to atomic science out of control.

During the same period, Disney tapped the potential for synergy between its new park landscapes and widespread ownership of television sets in the form of the Disneyland (1954–61) TV show. This sense of Disney responding to technologies entering the mainstream was later played out in the video-game-based movie Tron (1982) whereby both the perils and the rewards of a computer-based society are developed.

Telotte is best on movies. He offers inspired readings of both 20,000 Leagues and Tron. Less successful is his address to theme parks, which might have benefited from more historicism, at least in terms of dating and contextualizing specific rides such as Alien Encounter (1995–2003). (When tackling cartoons and movies, Telotte performs this duty immaculately.) This chapter might also have explored the role of hidden technology (the infamous underground trash chutes of Disney parkscapes) alongside the blatant and iconic, and how technology functions as a mechanism of social control within park berms. On a general note, it would be interesting to explore how much the Disney “message” is based around technological utopianism. As is common in most Disney scholarship, there are too many assumptions about the ways in which viewers negotiate the products and experiences sold them.

Those suggestions aside, The Mouse Machine is a wonderful read. Telotte demonstrates a superb grasp of Disney-related literature. He makes fine use of the work of the cultural theorist Paul Virilio. He stays true to his argument that Disney is important because it informs “our own cultural desire [End Page 953] for technology measured with a note of...